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Minister Reid, you are not Jesus Christ!

Christopher Burns

Sunday, August 27, 2017

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In his address to the 53rd Annual Conference of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) at the Hilton Rose Hall Resort and Spa, Education Minister Senator Ruel Reid issued the clumsiest mea culpa ever for intemperate and equally unnecessary remarks he made at the post-Cabinet briefing at Jamaica House on Thursday, August 3, 2017.

It was at that “briefing” that Reid contemptuously and purposefully described several of Jamaica's high school administrations — principals, teachers and governors — as “corrupt and extortionists” who blackmail parents into paying fees, contrary to government policy.

Senator Reid was in his element. He was unprovoked and totally composed when he made those now infamous and completely unwarranted claims about the nation's hard-working and under-resourced teachers.

However, what remains a mystery is whether Reid's vulgar tirade and banality of insensitivity were purely extemporaneous, or the unfortunate utterances reflected guidance from his political advisor — an advisor whose penchant for “cutting and pasting” editorials and news articles knows no bounds and comes without regard for rigorous analysis or reasonableness.

If a puerile political dunce was responsible for the minister's rambling insult to one of the hardest-working cadre of Jamaican professionals, then the minister must accept full responsibility for being doubly amateurish and embarrassingly shallow. If Reid were attempting to present himself and the Government he is a part of as “champions of the poor”, he would have failed miserably. Truth is, the greatest advocacy that he and his Government could ever advance would manifest itself in immediate accretions in the per capita spending on secondary school students in the Jamaican classroom, in addition to other badly needed resources.

It is often said “the past is prologue”, and in situations where politics intersects economics, nothing could be more profound. Lest we forget, it was in the run-up to the 2016 General Election that the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) relaunched the 1970s Michael Manley-led People's National Party (PNP) free secondary education policy — of sorts. This, in spite of the P J Patterson (1990s-led) reversal of the previous “fee” policy on grounds of scarce economic resources and as an indirect appeal to parents to start contributing to their children's future.

Obviously, the JLP did not extend the circumference of its calculation to include or consider any negative, unintended “economic” consequences that all its “free this and free that” and $1.5-million 'tax relief' promises could create for a country deeply saddled in debt, low productivity, and slow economic growth — despite marginal improvements of late.

Up to last year the Government was providing, on an average, $11,500 per student. Clearly, the per capita amount allocated by Government is not enough. Therefore, principals and school administrators added “auxiliary fees” to mitigate the cost of maintaining the education plant and experience.

In 2016, the amount that flowed into schools, by way of these fees, was roughly $2.1 billion. Principals were instructed (warned) not to turn away students who could not pay. Forced into a corner by its own litany of political promises, the Government eliminated auxiliary fees but also increased its subventions to schools to between $17,000 and $19,000. The increase at the top end was 65 per cent. Prima facie, the 65 per cent increase looks great. However, “100 per cent of zero is still zero”, meaning if the base is tiny then the increase does not translate to a windfall. Therefore, principals and school administrators were advised they could still “pray” parents to contribute, so long as it is not called “auxiliary fees”. This is an example of raw and vulgar Jamaican politics at work: In other words, principals may dance on pinhead, beg and smartly “must and bound” parents, just do not call it the politically offensive “auxiliary fees”; for heaven's sake, call it 'contribution' and we will give you a wink and a nod.

Everything was going according to plan until Minister Reid became miffed by what he claimed to be the “creative means” by which some principals and school administrators were attempting to make parents' contributions mandatory. Reid also appeared annoyed by feelings of financial shenanigans in some schools. Put in a blender, Reid's “ingredients of concerns” turned out to be immaterial and light. In the scheme of things, Ruel Reid's ingredients would not produce anything of substance, absent a substantial reordering of the Government's spending priorities to focus on increasing its subvention to schools enough to provide a good educational experience and outcome.

Although there is no worthwhile use in comparing the per capita spending for secondary level students elsewhere, given economic wherewithal and advanced development, context is always vital, if for nothing else but for measurement and for laying the basis for what must become a serious push toward achieving our development agenda through education (especially in languages, mathematics, science, and technology). It is important to note, too, that massive government per capita subventions for secondary school education do not, repeat, do not always guarantee spectacular outcomes; however, the investment would still be worth it.

According to a 2014 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report; Austria spends US$13,610 per secondary student per year; Luxembourg spends US$15,900; Norway, US$14,000; Switzerland, US$15,900; and the United States spends US$12,730. OECD sets international standards on a wide range of topics, including education spending. Even at the “substantial” $19,000 or US$148.44 per secondary student per year, Jamaica lags far behind. We will remain economically and socially uncompetitive for decades with this tiny investment in our human asset. We are talking a lot of hot air about our readiness to participate in the new “knowledge economy”. While not insurmountable, at the pace we are going, and at our rate of investment in education, it is not going to happen any time soon.

Jamaica's underperformance in education spending is not without history. In the run-up to the 1944-1952 general elections, Norman Manley stressed education as a prerequisite to economic development and social advancement, while his counterpart, Alexander Bustamante, was busy promoting the tangibility of “salt fish and flour”. We are paying a very high price for our under-investment in education. Its manifestation is obvious in the cost that comes with the stubborn challenge of social reengineering. In a sense, it is the same challenges we are experiencing because of chronic under-investment in our social capital and physical infrastructure.

I am being very careful here not to criticise the Andrew Holness-led JLP Government for its bold and broad policy shift towards equity and a universally accessible education system. As I see it, the shift, regardless of economic limitations, is necessary and, in and of itself, meets the qualification of being a “categorical imperative”.

Education is rationally necessary, and our commitment to having a fully or near-fully educated population is an unconditional principle that we must always follow, despite any natural desires or economic inclinations we may have to the contrary. Similar to decades of misappropriation and misallocation of resources away from improving our law enforcement and justice systems, we are now paying a price because of rampant disorder and shortage of resources and technological capabilities.

Political antecedent aside, the underperformance in education funding seriously threatens the country's economic, social and political future. Therefore, any help, be it auxiliary fees or “contributions”, that parents can make towards their children's education should be encouraged. As harsh as it sounds, in some instances, contributions to secondary education must become mandatory for those who are financially empowered and capable. We cannot be constrained by “political correctness” or be too shy to employ creative means to subsidise our children's education — if not permanently, then at least until things improve economically for the country.

But let us return to Minister Reid's attempt to right an egregious wrong of a terrible error of judgement caused by his deployment of tongue ahead of brain. The minister and lay preacher journeyed to Montego Bay to address the gathering of teachers and to offer his apology, but ended up doing the unthinkable: behaving like a typical snake oil salesman. Reid did not really apologise. He merely appeased and invoked the principle of “righteous indignation” as the premise for excusing his prior actions. By doing so, Reid remains resolute in his conviction that he did not offend his employees. Instead, he simply piggybacked on the biblical account of Jesus's actions — then equated his behaviour to that of Jesus when he drove the moneylenders out of the temple. How presumptuous! Minister Reid, you are not Jesus Christ, so cut out the foolishness.

The portion of Reid's presentation that addressed his ill-timed and vulgar comments went thusly: “I want to publicly apologise for the hurts that may have occurred in that regard…” Reid continued, “The minister is responsible for spiritual leadership within the education sector. And so, as a lay pastor myself, I have to lead by example. There are times when... and I remember when Jesus himself had to use some harsh words. And He himself had to reflect on it. I have personally reached out and I have said to persons that I have withdrawn those statements.”

Minister Reid, I assume you were a persnickety schoolteacher. Forgive me, therefore, for taking offence to your glaring use of a split infinitive: “I want to publicly apologise for the hurts that may have occurred…” Hurts that may have occurred, [may have] Mr Minister? Well, Minister, I would have been completely blown away by your apology if it went something along the lines of…“Ladies and gentlemen, I apologise publicly for the hurt my inelegant and impetuous utterances have caused…” Period.

There is no logical value, none whatsoever, in invoking Jesus's righteous indignation as part of your apology. To begin with, Jesus never apologises. He has a temper, yes; but He never apologises. Unlike the minister and lay pastor, who accused his principals and school administrators of “corruption and extortion”, Jesus knows better than to engage His lips ahead of His brain. Furthermore, He never alleges anything. He is always correct. He is perfect.

Burnscg@aol.com

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